Regional Theater Review: VENUS IN FUR (South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa)

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by Jason Rohrer on October 12, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional

THIS VENUS HAS THE RIGHT PAGE

David Ives’ two-character adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel Venus in Furs wowed New York in 2010, largely for its star turn by Nina Arianda as an actress auditioning for, and then auditing the deepest morality of, a playwright who has adapted Venus in Furs (but lopped off the terminal “s,” as has Ives). In the new South Coast Rep production, Jaimi Page is very good in the part. Physically and emotionally ready, technically proficient, Page takes full advantage of the plum role in a pretty good play. She makes more of the show than is on the page, as an actor should.

Graham Hamilton and Jaimi Paige in South Coast Repertory's 2014

Her director Casey Stangl does not tend to rise above her material – I found her 2013 Antaeus production of Pierre Corneille’s The Liar no more interesting than Ives’ laboriously clever translation; her 2013 handling of  Tony Kushner’s adaptation of Corneille’s The Illusion at A Noise Within was stronger, but Kushner had provided a stronger play. This time, Stangl reinforces the ultimate triviality of Ives’ essay on sexual politics. She stages drama bluntly, moving the actors in predictable patterns. She gets a typically convincing South Coast Rep set from designer Keith Mitchell, except for a lazily executed cinderblock wall stage right; she gets David Kay Mickelson to provide exciting, character-appropriate costumes, except for an ill-tailored miniskirt and a pair of boots that lack the gravitas with which Ives endows them. But these great designers are in service to a literal, uninspired production that still could be entirely adequate to show off what’s good about Ives’ work, above and beyond its significance as one more iteration of the playwright-writing-about-a-playwright idiom: his intelligent chatter, his workmanlike structure, his well-made-play professionalism.

Graham Hamilton and Jaimi Paige in South Coast Repertory's 2014

But Page’s co-star here, Graham Hamilton, is a Stangl favorite, and she does not always cast him well. He was convincing, even delightful, as an ingenuous lover in her Illusion; but as a scheming con artist in her Liar, he lacked credible humanity. As the playwright of the fictional Venus in Fur, Hamilton delivers a glib performance, presentational and indicative, suited to Stangl’s bland take on the story. His boffo read of Ives’ pretentious playwright is incongruous, as this character must at times embody absolute sincerity. I never quite believe in the heightened circumstance Hamilton is playing.

Jaimi Paige and Graham Hamilton in South Coast Repertory's 2014 production of Venus in Fur by David Ives. Photo by Debora Robinson, SCR

Judging from Page’s femme fatale, it’s clear the script can play much better than it reads. Ives’ missteps – including a very dubious late character revelation, and an unpacked bag of red herrings that stack up in a dishonest kind of dramatic obfuscation – could seem as unimportant as they now seem destructive. Here, Page is a self-contained unit, capable of expressing all the important nuances, and makes this a show worth watching.

Graham Hamilton and Jaimi Paige in South Coast Repertory's 2014

photos by Debora Robinson/SCR

Venus in Fur
Julianne Argyros Stage
South Coast Repertory
655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa
scheduled to end on October 26, 2014
for tickets, call (714) 708-5555 or visit www.SCR.org

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